From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a class of vino and mangiare!
There are few things more beautiful than an ancient Roman mosaic, the colorful tiles meticulously arranged to tell a story of life as it was. In these fantastic works of art, the tiles are the building blocks that form complexity, different shades and shapes giving the wall or floor it’s character. But the Romans were a weird people too, and so they had another kind of mosaic–one completely backward from the original stone type.
Meet Taleggio, Italy’s monumental mosaic of cheese. Taleggio is loved for its diversity of flavor, with each note and hint composing a gigantic gastronomical puzzle. Flavors and aromas of fruit and nuts, as well as a rich meatiness, make every tastebud explode with pleasure, while a slightly moldy rind adds quite an afterbite. What makes this cheese even more of a mosaic is its rectangular shape; it’s formed into blocks and packed side-by-side onto wooden shelves in a grid pattern. White and gray-green molds form on the orangey rind to make a colorful latticework – a cheese lover’s visual dream.
Unlike the rest of our cheeses in this series, Taleggio doesn’t come from some myth or legend into the modern world. It’s just always been there. Historians and archaeologists can trace it geographically back to the ninth century, pinning it to Val Taleggio, an Alpine valley in the Lombardy region, although the cheese has evidently existed for much longer along the Alpine migration route (the same route along which Gorgonzola was born). In the thirteenth century, written records show that Taleggio was used as currency, it’s compact form making it perfect for bartering and trading. Intriguingly enough, the name “Taleggio” did not come about until 1914. Until then, it was known as Stracchino quadro di Milano (tired square cheese of Milan), called as such because of the high-butterfat “tired” milk from migrating cows. Come the turn of the century, cheese pundits slapped geographic recognition for the cheese’s place of origin, thus making it Stracchino quadro di Taleggio. Ten years later, the name was shortened to just “Taleggio,” and it earned DOP protection another century after for ten provinces in and around Lombardy (such as Milan, Venetia, and Piedmont).
Production of Taleggio is simple, but requires a lot of dedication and upkeep in order to make a good product. First and foremost, the old-world recipe is dependent upon geography just as much as it is on milk itself. At higher-altitude Alpine regions where the air is colder and drier, only hard cheeses do well in large quantities. Unless soft cheeses are made in small batches and in heavily-controlled locations, they just don’t taste right; the enzymes and mold won’t properly work their way through the cheese, producing their distinctly flavored byproducts. Val Taleggio is located in the Po River Valley a ways down from the Alpine peaks where the temperature is slightly warmer (72 to 77°F) and the air is far more humid (90%) – mold’s favorite place to be. At this point on the migration trail, too, cows are sufficiently tired from their seasonal hike (up the Alps in the summer and down to the valley in the winter), giving the milk a much higher butterfat content than that from cattle resting at pasture. While nowadays the cheese is mass-produced year-round with cows that don’t migrate, rustic artisanal cheesemakers will still follow the old method to a tee.
Regardless of how awake the milk is, everything starts and ends the same way. Whole cow’s milk – either fresh or leftover (nothing goes to waste!) – is heated to between 86 and 97°F, and animal rennet is added as a coagulant. Alternatively, some makers will introduce milk that’s already fermented, an ancient process that can be repeated almost indefinitely and save one from ever having to buy new starter cultures. After 15 to 20 minutes, the curds are cut, and then cut again after another ten minutes of rest. Whey is drained over a metal table, on which the curds are molded into their signature squares. Salt is applied both by hand and by way of a brine; then, the squares are transferred over to wooden shelves for aging. The cheese is turned at regular intervals for the first eighteen hours, allowing the salt to distribute and drying the rind. For the next forty days, the entire aging process, makers will regularly scrub the rind with a salt solution to spread good bacteria, scrub off excess, and prevent mold overgrowth, since too much can make the cheese bitter and disgusting. This is what reveals the cheese’s characteristic terracotta hue, as the rind is mainly composed of cannibal bacteria feeding off of their predecessors (we’re more civilized than our cheeses, we promise!), flavoring the paste, and giving Taleggio its distinctive pungent aroma.
At forty weeks, the blocks of Taleggio are ready to be unpacked from shelves, repacked into boxes, and shipped all over the world. Even though it’s no longer a currency, the cheese might as well be as good as gold. It’s a worldwide favorite, and our readers here at culture continuously tell us how much they love it. The complex flavor palette makes this cheese extraordinarily versatile. For the purest taste of Taleggio’s gustatory mosaic, try spreading some of the paste on a hunk of rustic bread; the rich, meaty primary flavor creates a super-savory pairing, making the subdued fruitiness of the cheese far more noticeable, but also far less intense. Inversely, if you pair Taleggio with sweet grapes, currants, pignoli (pine nuts), or a sweet wine like a red Italian Nebbiolo, the cheese becomes super-sweet, great for dessert or an early-morning breakfast. As an ingredient, Taleggio’s softness makes it easy to melt and mix, and many Italians love the cheese in risotto or (what a surprise) pasta. Check out our recipe for Taleggio Risotto with Earthy Flavors, our enhanced version of a classic Italian side dish. Or, for something more modern, try Grilled Cheese with Onion Jam, Taleggio, and Escarole, a massive clashing of savory and sweet all packed between two crispy slices of sourdough.
Taleggio really is a cheese without borders (even though it’s packed neatly into a block). Next time you’re out and about, look for these exceptional D.O.P.-certified makers:
- Arnoldi Valtaleggio: An old-time maker with a line of several Taleggio cheeses, some aged a while longer (stravecchio) for a stronger flavor.
- Caseificio Taddei Taleggio
- Arrigoni Taleggio
Also check out the website for the Consorzio Tutela Taleggio, your D.O.P.-approved source for all things related to our soft, pungent friend.Photo Credit: Consorzio Tutela Taleggio